Is AA "Too White"? - Page 2

By Jeff Deeney 01/16/11

Dismissing AA as a white-person's movement, many black addicts take a pass on the 12-steps and seek salvation from their church. That's not always a prescription for success.

The black church is the pillar of North Philly life. Photo via

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The minister at Susan’s church was a tiny woman of advanced age and outsized presence; her eyes shone fiercely bright and clear, and her voice was still strong enough to fill the sanctuary to the rafters during services. There have always been women like Susan around the reverend, hanging on her every word and attending to her needs. Ex-convicts, former prostitutes, recovering addicts—they gravitate toward her aura of faith that conveys a sense of safe harbor and the hope for grace. There are also the working mothers dropping by on their lunch breaks and the neighborhood men, those hulking pillars of community stability, who come with them to get a noonday dose of strength that keeps their days full of lightness and their spirits high.

Susan said she knew the joy of being filled with the Holy Spirit when she attended services several times a week. She said she knew that her faith would see her through, that faith coupled with works works miracles. Convinced that Susan was a solid prospect, the agency funded a small apartment, and Susan soon moved in, along with Ashley and Ashley’s newborn baby.

Yet Susan was more than a devoted member of the flock; she was wholly reliant on the church for social, spiritual and financial support. As strong as this single-minded devotion and dependence may have appeared to Susan, I knew that putting all her eggs in one basked was a very risky proposition. I had seen such apparently solid arrangements melt into air, leaving my clients with no recourse, nothing. So I counseled Susan to build networks of support outside the church. In particular, I asked her if she was interested in professional counseling or 12-step recovery groups. But she rejected both out of hand, saying that she would get what she needed from the church.

This attitude is fairly common among African-Americans addicts in poor neighborhoods in most large US cities; ironically, while the biggest complaint about AA and NA among skeptical middle-class white addicts is the dependence on a Higher Power, in urban black communities 12-step recovery groups are marginalized because they aren't explicitly allied with any church. In addition, the confessional mode of "sharing" that defines the AA fellowship is alien to the ethic of African- neighborhoods, where airing your dirty laundry in public is disappoved of rather than viewed as a method of establishing trust and fellowship. For the same reason, professional psychotherapy is frequently dismissed as a "white" treatment; given the church's influence, mental health issues are widely viewed as caused by a lack of faith remedied by more regular attendance at Bible study.

When I was new to doing social work in the black community, this widespread attitude confused me and frustrated my efforts to help my black clients. An an ex-junkie, I could vow for the benefits to be gained from both recovery groups and therapy. A North Philly church lady coworker set me straight. “A lot of black don't feel that AA and therapy are alien to everything they know," she told me. "If you got problems you just go to church on Sunday and scream your head off and then everything’s fine."

But for Susan, it turned out, everything wasn’t fine. While Jesus and the church were pulling her in one direction, the judicial system had made an unwelcome appearance and was pulling her in another. The entire time Susan was in prison, the state of Pennsylvania was running a tab on all the welfare dollars her mother received in her children’s names. Consequently, per state law, Susan was held responsible for the total amount upon her release, and soon the welfare department came calling to get its money back.

In our sessions, Susan showed me a raft of increasingly threatening official letters with eye-popping dollar figures that had her practically hyperventilating. The state wanted in excess of $25,000, and wanted it now.

A hearing was scheduled at the Bucks County Courthouse, where Susan was asked to provide documents proving that she had a job and could start paying her child support debt or face returning to jail in contempt of a court order. Obviously, on her janitor’s survival wages Susan had absolutely no capacity to both pay the state and keep a roof over her head. This Sophie's choice is a common dilemma for tens of thousands of single mothers returning to the community from prison who owe the state for the dollars their children depended on in their mother’s absence.

Many states require the moms behind bars to assume the burden of child support if they wish to keep their children from being lost in the foster care system. Yet the vast majority are like Susan, devoid of resources except the pennies she might ear from her prison job—and what loving mother (it need hardly be noted the crack addicts and prostitutes do not negate materal love) would even think twice about "defrauding" the system to provide her children with at least minimal security?  

I will never forget how painful it was, watching Susan, who had never in her life caught a single  break, have to stand before the American justice system and nearly beg for mercy. But for this black woman in this white judge's court room no mercy was to be had. 

This cruel no-win predicament drove Susan to desperation. “Do they know how hard it's going to be to hold down a job if I wind up in a homeless shelter?” she asked me. “Don’t they understand that I’m walking with the Lord and trying to get my life together?”

I accompanied her to the courthouse intending to speak with the judge and explain Susan’s special circumstances. I hoped that the court would grant leniency and allow me to continue working with Susan; she was off the streets, off drugs, back in housing, back to work. She was a success of the system. How could Bucks County not do the right thing and hold off on onerous monthly support payments until she was a little more stable?

But the judge, a middle aged, white Republican appointee in a county notorious for its GOP family court judges with a special beef againstblack women from Philadelphia running up welfare bills on their county’s tab while sitting in jail, refused even to give us a word at the bar of the court. He asked Susan for documentation proving her employment status and when she told him her job at the church was paid under the table, he snarled derisively, “Isn’t that the American way?” clearly insinuating that Susan was not only a common criminal, but a tax-dodging welfare mother, too.

Susan protested the high amount of the monthly support payment, explaining that if she paid the debt she couldn’t afford a place to live. I will never forget how painful it was, watching this woman, who had never in her life caught a single  break, have to stand before the American justice system and nearly beg for mercy. But for this black woman in this white judge's courtroom there was no mercy to be had. Her criminal record of violent crime, her drug addiction, her prostitution—all of her vices outweighed the spiritual transformation and personal rehabilitation she had experienced in prison, not to mention her clean-as-a-whistle record in her new life.

The judge merely mocked her, saying, “You’ve got a place to live now: Bucks County Correctional Facility for 90 days.” The public defender tried to interject but the judge was already calling for the next case.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.